Vatican says Pope’s Israel visit still on, for now

Holy See denies statements made by Foreign Ministry sources, who said their labor strike forced pontiff to cancel

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Pope Francis delivers his 'Urbi et Orbi' (to the City and to the World) message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, December 25, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis delivers his 'Urbi et Orbi' (to the City and to the World) message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, December 25, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Gregorio Borgia)

For now, Pope Francis’s trip to Israel in May is to take place as originally planned, senior Vatican officials insisted over the weekend. The Vatican officials’ comments contradicted statements made by Israeli diplomatic sources, who claimed Thursday that the Holy See had been forced to cancel the visit due to an ongoing strike in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry’s spokesman on Friday had publicly said the pope’s trip was “perhaps impossible.”

“The strike may create difficulties but for now there is nothing further as far as we are concerned,” the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told reporters.

Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin also said the visit was set to go ahead. “I have heard nothing about any changes being made, even though the news did cause some apprehension and gave the idea that the visit may not take place. But as far as I know the trip will go ahead,” he told an Italian newspaper.

Foreign Ministry officials, who on Thursday privately asserted that the papal visit was definitely canceled, but did not want to state that on the record — as they argued it was not their place to comment on the pope’s travel plans — on Sunday changed their tone. They said the visit might not have been officially annulled and allowed for the possibility that it could take place despite the strike, although they still wondered how the pope could arrive in Israel without the assistance of the Foreign Ministry.

“The whole question on the pope’s visit now depends on the willingness of the Finance Ministry to take necessary steps to end the strike,” a Foreign Ministry employee said.

Furthermore, the officials suggested that, after news of the pope’s “cancellation” broke, Israeli officials from outside the Foreign Ministry might have acted on their own to ensure the visit goes ahead. Due to the importance of the pope’s trip, and this week’s similarly threatened visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office or other government agencies may have reached out to London and the Vatican to persuade the dignitaries to ignore the Foreign Ministry strike, a source in the ministry said.

“We were under the impression that the Vatican had canceled the trip. Either we were wrong, or we were right and they did cancel but somebody in the PMO or somewhere else contacted them and said, ‘Please come, we can handle the visit without them,'” the source said.

An official at the PMO declined to comment on this issue.

Cameron is expected in Jerusalem on Wednesday, and will address the Knesset, despite the Foreign Ministry’s refusal to deal with any preparatory work or to assist with the visit in any way. The Knesset on Sunday formally released the schedule of Cameron’s appearance there.

“Imminent planned visits by foreign leaders, including David Cameron next week or the pope in May, will be complicated, and perhaps impossible” due to the strike, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor had told AFP on Friday. “The leaders could come as tourists, but diplomats will not take care of logistics, protocol or the political dimension of these visits,” said Palmor, speaking as employee and not in his capacity as ministry spokesman.

On Wednesday, Foreign Ministry staff had indicated that Cameron had been forced to reschedule the visit due to the labor dispute. “I just don’t see how it’ll be possible to go ahead with the visit without the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry,” Palmor told The Times of Israel at the time.

On Thursday, a source at the ministry had told The Times of Israel that the pontiff’s trip, which is to take place over May 24-26, was canceled because Foreign Ministry workers have entered a labor dispute and refuse to make the necessary arrangements for the high-profile visit.

A day later, other sources in the ministry confirmed the report, saying that the apostolic nuncio to Israel — the Vatican’s chief envoy to the Jewish state — had made plain that if a preparatory meeting, planned for this week, could not take place, the pope’s visit could not go ahead, and would have to be canceled entirely rather than merely rescheduled. Since the preparatory meeting would definitely not take place, the sources said they considered the visit cancelled.

Francis announced in January that he would be visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May. He is also planning to travel to Amman.

Francis’s trip is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, in Jerusalem.

The trip would be the new pope’s second visit to the Holy Land. He arrived in Israel in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. As The Times of Israel revealed in April, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent six days confined by the conflict to his Jerusalem hotel, where he studied the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.

President Shimon Peres first invited Francis to Israel immediately after his election as pope, calling on him to visit as a spiritual — not a political — leader. “The sooner you visit, the better; in these days, a new opportunity is being created for peace, and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace,” Peres told the pope at the time.

Both of the pontiff’s immediate predecessors visited Israel — Benedict XVI in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000.

The Israeli diplomats’ strike also still threatens the planned visit of Peres to China, which has not been officially confirmed, but is planned for April. Israel’s embassy in China said last week it was halting work on the planned visit by Peres to Beijing, as well as many other diplomatic projects, as part of labor sanctions initiated by workers who are demanding better pay from the Finance Ministry.

The Workers Union, which is fighting for higher salaries and better working conditions for diplomats serving abroad, published a list of more than two dozen measures that took effect as of Tuesday. For instance, Foreign Ministry officials will no longer cooperate in organizing visits of foreign presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other officials. Likewise, the diplomats will henceforth refuse to assist Israeli officials currently abroad or planning overseas trips. No diplomatic passports will be issued and “no assistance whatsoever” will be granted to Israeli officials abroad. In addition, all consular services to Israeli citizens are suspended; exceptions will only be made in cases where lives are in danger, or bodies need to be returned to Israel for burials.

Furthermore, the ministry is temporarily suspending any cooperation with government institutions, specifically the Finance Ministry but also the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence services and the IDF. No diplomatic cables are being sent by diplomats and the cadets course and distribution of pro-Israel public diplomacy materials has been put on hold. Diplomats have been instructed to cease any contact with the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, and other international organizations, including peacekeeping missions on Israel’s borders, such as UNIFIL and UNDOF.

Last summer, the Workers Union initiated similar labor sanctions, which were suspended at the end of July when the diplomats and the Finance Ministry agreed to approach a mediator. But the talks broke down last week with no result.

Gavriel Fiske and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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